Film In Conversation
MARTHA COLBURN and PAT O’NEILL with Marius Hrdy
From their home in Pasadena, California, surrounded by trees, experimental animator Martha Colburn and filmmaker icon Pat O’Neill carry on creating work together. Both artists boast prolific careers, each examining in their own way a kind of perceptual ambiguity. In her filmic collages, Colburn juxtaposes myths with current events, physically manipulating, painting, scratching the analog film strip, and animating epical landscapes. O’Neill, a master of optical printing techniques, explores the interdependencies and conflicts between the natural world and human civilization through layering found footage, compositing, and time-lapse strategies.
Drawing ideas from paintings, books, films, and audio recordings, along with poetry and music, they share a common interest in collecting and recycling materials, often reusing them across multiple mediums, in performances and multi-channel installations, drawings, sculptures, and assemblages. This conversation was conducted following the online edition of this year’s Orphan Film Symposium where Colburn received the Helen Hill Award honoring her career in Super 8mm filmmaking. We discussed their joining creative forces and reaching towards new frontiers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests against police brutality and racism.
Marius Hrdy (Rail): How are you currently doing in Pasadena?
Colburn and O’Neill: We've been hiding out for almost five months now trying not to get sick and die. We’re realizing this may seem like a short time in three years or whenever they find a vaccine.
Rail: What places do you miss going to the most?
Colburn and O’Neill: When not flying around the world we never went out any place anyways, so not much has changed. The first and last thing we did was we went to the city for Yuval Sharon's outdoor opera production (which Martha was going to work on and her friend Raven Chacon was composing for). It was the premiere at the LA State Historic Park—then the virus came and shut it down. We welcome “Stay at Home Orders.”
Rail: How have the last few months influenced your everyday life and work?
Colburn and O’Neill: We shot hours of short snippets of scenarios, daily activities, “suburban-nature” scenes, costumed exotica, time-lapsed decay, collaborative painting, and the President’s mouth up-close off the TV. Since there's two of us working together, and that's new for both of us, we’re able to generate surprises for the other.
Rail: Being artists with long individual careers in their own right, what are your mutual inspirations?
O’Neill: Holding a lighter under my thumb until I can't anymore.
Colburn: See, that’s something mutual! I filmed that very scene in my Super 8mm film My Secret Shame (1996) to a line of poetry by 99 Hooker who says, “I get a peaceful, easy feeling, burning myself.” Pat gives me the confidence to make spontaneous expressive things and later think about what they mean in the context of other things—which, for an animator, is new, since animations take some amount of deliberate planning.
Rail: You have always drawn and painted alongside your film work, creating a wealth of collages, also sculptures and assemblages. You sent me some pictures of paintings and sculptures you are currently working on: vigorously sanding the sculpture of a hand, a painting of people engaging in leisure going to the beach, but also a sound sample of your spoken word poetry, “Swinger.” Could you talk a little bit about these and the different materials you use?
Colburn: We have been making collaborative paintings and drawings for the past year. I select instructional drawings that I source from Pat's favorite old books and we combine these with more contemporary drawings of Pat’s and I act as colorist, painter, and composer of the final painting. What's really fun (which we film “reality TV style”) is when Pat is directing my paint brush and making on the fly decisions compositionally using projections on the canvas. We also recorded and combined audio for a record that is to come out on a Dutch label, Astres d’Or, that was to be a limited edition of 25 handmade covers and albums, but since the pandemic this disappeared.
Rail: Could you expand on how the subjects you focus on have changed over the years and what subjects you are currently interested in?
Colburn: Pat has three big sculptures in progress. I am making paintings and drawings and am editing an opera I worked on in London last year. Pat works in a very straightforward manner, with laborious processes involved, with a clear endpoint. I paint one large painting over and over, themes changing, colors, light/dark, ricocheting day to day between differing expressions. Labor soothes the soul. Pat is erasing scratches in his plastic sculpture and I am erasing paintings. Erasure seems to have surfaced as a method.
Rail: At this year’s Orphan Film Symposium, you premiered your music video “I Don’t Wanna (Go to Bed Tonight)” for the band Chasing Rainbows. It is something of an anti-lullaby, and in it we see a car chase, a cat-like figure dancing and mirrored and overlayed images creating a tenderly insomniac atmosphere. Could you talk a bit about how this work came about?
Colburn: I met Lawrence Rengert III at Rijksakademie in the early 2000s and when moving to Pasadena we reconnected and his Dutch-American band Chasing Rainbows needed a video. And since Pat and I had shot a lot of footage with no real direction or outlet, we combined our work to make this video.
O’Neill: It uses videos of car chases from LA, which are becoming the most spontaneous form of entertainment on television. It's something done by amateur performers on the streets we live on and can appear at any time of day or night. The police department and desperate individuals enact a ritual of resistance to the police which always ends the same way: with the capture of the offending driver.
Rail: Music has been a major influence in both of your work, but also in your work for other artists. Pat’s promo video “Heresy (Coming Down)” for the namesake 1968 album of experimental psychedelic rock band the United States of America comes to mind. And Martha’s been working with a wealth of musicians and styles, from noise to electronic music, from orchestra arrangements to multi-instrumental experimental. Can you talk about how your collaborations with musicians, literary inspirations, and other artists’ influence on your own work?
Colburn: Pat has worked with several different sound designers and musicians. He told me that the band The United States of America broke up before the music video was released and he had only two days to make it. There always seems to be a story around music videos. Pat and I both have worked with many musicians, poets, actors, authors, and more, but now we turned a new leaf. We are making material utilizing live sound and improvisation that is sometimes autobiographical in nature. Now is the time to loosen up the boundaries. It is in the air with the protests, with the shifting of society.
Rail: What have you been reading or watching recently?
Colburn: We've been reading bits of The Nature of Things by Lucretius written in 50 BC, Guilty by Georges Bataille, and various Zen books. We watch David Lynch's “What Is David Working on Today?” videos and weather forecasts. We viewed some Emergency Broadcast Network videos and also some found footage on 16mm—a friend of my sister's sent us two boxes of little 16mm film reels. He was inspired by Bruce Conner and made—I assume in the 1970s—black and white cut-up films using car crashes, bombs, military drills, and a variety of social commentary.
Rail: Do you take inspiration from your analog past into your digital film work of recent years? How is your work process looking now?
Colburn: We are recording our moving images with phones. The pandemic stripped us of our desire to make any kind of overly controlled or contrived imagery, I think as a reaction to being “locked-down” or “controlled” or “hunkered-down.” Pat’s making sculptures and I am making paintings and we film each other as a kind of studio document. We film our activities—hands-on, therapeutic in a way—sanding/painting/ scrubbing/buffing. We like doing these activities side-by-side, working silently, appreciating the peacefulness of the moments we find to make work. Now in the “New Normal,” we live in a present tense more than ever. We’re also shooting some material on 16mm with stock from the Orphans Helen Hill Award.
Rail: You both have, at times, reworked your films into performances or conceived of them as multichannel installations. What is the importance of reference, returning to themes, revisiting your earlier work or physical materials in your artistic practice?
Colburn: Currently Pat is working on a plexiglass and wood sculpture that he began 30 years ago and I am working on drawing coloring books and other designs from work I did 25 years ago. My present for Pat’s 81st birthday was that I found an amazing welder who came by (socially distanced) and picked up a WWII practice bomb he welded a brace onto in order to attach Pat’s grandfather’s Manitoba Moose horns!
O’Neill: We were going through some files of mine that included scripts and things, mostly daily notes taken on yellow lined loose papers. Martha copied out the lines that resonated with both of us—some written as proverbs or plays with words, others like “Kissliac Cadillac” just for their sound. Martha read these over a few takes and we edited them to a musical track by Rita Braga (a Portuguese singer, songwriter, and ukulele player). We also worked on a 20-minute long “Pandemic” track that conveys the odd soundscape we all exclusively live with now. A highly sensitive sonic landscape that has little variety: coyotes, the cat, the door, the sink, the wind…